Neurodermatitis and Co.: "Nothing works without gratitude": How positive psychology can help with chronic diseases

Sleepless nights, constant scratching and unpleasant looks: When Katja Williams talks about the first time with her neurodermatitis, she mainly thinks of negative moments.

Neurodermatitis and Co.: "Nothing works without gratitude": How positive psychology can help with chronic diseases

Sleepless nights, constant scratching and unpleasant looks: When Katja Williams talks about the first time with her neurodermatitis, she mainly thinks of negative moments. In an interview with the star, she tells how the diagnosis has changed her life: "Neurodermatitis has accompanied me since my childhood." Even if there was a time without neurodermatitis in between, the symptoms would have gotten worse over time.

Atopic dermatitis is a chronic disease that is mainly characterized by a skin rash in combination with an agonizing itching. Depending on the severity, the rash appears on different parts of the body. At Williams, it all started in the hollows of the knees and crooks of the arms. "Eventually the hands came along and then the neck and face. That was the worst part for me because I can't cover those places."

According to the German Dermatological Society (DDG), around two million children and 2.5 million adults struggle with these or similar problems in Germany alone every year. It is not uncommon for those affected to withdraw and develop psychological problems. The suffering was also great for Williams, she quickly realized that "neurodermatitis is not only evident on the skin, but often also on the soul."

Psychotherapist Andrea Horn is also familiar with the psychological side effects of a chronic illness. In an interview with the star she says: "Body and psyche always form a unit, which is why we can only look at both together. So if the body is missing something, then the psyche always reacts." That is why people with a chronic illness in particular are required to take care of their psyche.

Atopic dermatitis in particular is an illness that puts an enormous strain on the psyche. The reason for this is the itching, as Horn explains: "Itching addresses exactly the areas in the human brain that are also triggered when there is pain. In terms of processing, the level of suffering is therefore similar." In addition, the fear of a new flare-up, the shame of showing oneself in public and the associated fear of rejection also play a role in those affected.

A situation that Williams no longer wanted to put up with, as she tells Stern: "I wanted to be able to live a full life – despite my illness." Over time, she learned to accept herself and deal with her neurodermatitis. An important guide in this context was positive psychology. Today she knows: "A positive view of the disease in combination with medical therapy helped me a lot."

Positive psychology can be used by appropriate psychotherapists as an accompanying indication. But it is about much more than positive thinking. Psychotherapist Horn explains the concept as follows: "The goal is not that we go through the world beaming with joy every day. That's not even possible." It is much more important that we learn to accept each of our feelings.

In conversation with her clients, Horn likes to explain this in a picture: "Our emotional world is like a color palette - there are very happy and bright colors, but also a very dark palette. Positive psychology does not say that we are in the brightest colors every day paint, but recognize this diversity."

But: positive psychology is by no means treatment of the sick. The methods and strategies, which primarily revolve around mindfulness, activating resources and strengths and establishing a positive attitude towards life, aim to enable healthy and chronically ill people to live their lives in a self-determined and contented way. "So those affected look at what makes them different from the suffering, what strengths, desires and talents they actually have," explains the psychotherapist.

Williams, who suffers from neurodermatitis, has managed to deal better with her illness: "I've learned that two questions are central: How full or empty is my own battery and what can I do to recharge my batteries?" Says she in conversation with the star. She has also learned to listen to her body's signals, to take time out and to appreciate what she has in life: "Without gratitude, nothing works," says Williams.

Andrea Horn mentions another positive effect: "Atopic dermatitis is also a stress-related disease. That means it is more severe when there is more stress in the life of those affected. We can help to reduce the symptoms with self-care and a positive attitude." For this reason, the psychologist is also convinced that psychological practice can be a good opportunity for many chronically ill people in Germany to shape their lives (more) actively. She has had good experiences with autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes in particular. "My attitude is: Positive psychology is good for everyone."

At least in the case of Ms. Williams, she should be right. She has found her way back to an active and self-determined life through positive psychology, as she tells the star: "Today I'm fine. Of course I also have 'bad' days. But that's okay, because I'm basically at peace with myself am and enjoy my life despite neurodermatitis."

However, this cannot be generalized. Whether positive psychology, which is used by many psychotherapists today as part of psychotherapy, can really help chronically ill people always depends on the individual initial situation. And how those affected deal with the content, as psychotherapist Horn explains: "You have to be careful not to put yourself under pressure."

According to the Robert Koch Institute, 40 percent of people in Germany live with at least one chronic disease. The most common are allergies, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. According to psychotherapist Horn, it is worthwhile for most of those affected to give positive psychology at least a chance, because "as far as I know, we only have one life. And especially when we have a chronic physical illness, we can only try to make the best of it."

Sources: German Society for Positive Psychology